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Not all research deserves public funding

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Judging by the reaction reported in this newspaper under the headline “PM urged to restore science funds,” you'd think the federal budget had devastated Canadian research funding. More than 2,000 researchers signed an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper protesting against a $148-million reduction for three federal agencies that finance research at Canadian universities.

An analysis by Re$earch Infosource, titled “Canada's Top Research Universities Report,” examines sponsored research at 71 Canadian universities. During fiscal 2006-07, total research income from public and private sources increased by about $200-million to $5.8-billion. “Research intensity,” i.e. average sponsored research income for the approximately 40,000 full-time faculty, was $146,600.

So how does this data square with that open letter painting a desperate picture of “a huge step backward” and “scrambling to identify budget cuts for their labs, while worrying about the future of their graduate students?” The answer lies in the great inconvenient truth about the culture of Canada's research universities. A big part of university research dollars are spent on esoteric academic-interest research that doesn't have the slightest chance of yielding any real value to society, and the vast majority of research papers aren't read by anyone except a few colleagues sharing the same academic interest.

Read any university annual report and you'll see “research funds attracted” near the top of the highlights. This is supposed to reflect the quality of the faculty, and that may well be true for a few high-profile stars. The report may also highlight examples of successful research achievements. It's encouraging to see these, but for every researcher whose work has captured attention thanks to sheer merit, there are hundreds of other research projects where a proper results assessment is never done.

In pointing this out, I know I risk being accused of failing to understand that important breakthroughs occur from basic research that has no predictable goal. I acknowledge that to be true, but on the other hand, not every project can or should be financed. Choices need to made, and outcomes need to be independently measured.

Imagine how long a private business would last if it measured itself primarily on “investor funds attracted” rather than the return resulting from investment of those dollars. Companies need to make choices between competing projects, and investors need to get audited reports on results. Shouldn't taxpayers be entitled to the same level of accountability?

Many of the scientists who signed that letter to the Prime Minister may well be pursuing research that actually does merit increased funding. So why don't they call for reallocation of some of that $5.8-billion being wasted on projects that any reasonable examination would find to be of lesser or no merit? Because they know that changing the hidebound university culture is next to impossible.

Besides, imagine what a pariah one would become around campus if you threaten “academic independence” by suggesting anything so crass as considering relative importance and potential benefit in the great game of getting research money. They know their only real hope is extracting more public cash, rather than pulling the veil away from the great inconvenient truth about university research funding. Hence, they join together to accuse government of “leaving Canada behind” in university research.

It's understandable if taxpayers employed in the private sector find this difficult to fathom. Even in the best of times, businesses must continually reallocate human and financial capital from low-value-added areas to those projects and products that have high potential. And these are far from the best of times. Businesses are being forced to make tough choices and to do more with less.

Universities cannot bring themselves to even discuss ways of making better choices in the allocation of the billions in research dollars they already receive. Entrenched in this paradigm, clamouring for more taxpayer dollars becomes the only way to finance expanded research in the economically crucial area of basic and applied science. Meanwhile, irrelevant and low-quality research continues to be financed.

The same failure to make realistic choices also applies to the allocation of student enrolment offerings. Many qualified applicants are turned away from critical need areas such as engineering and medicine, while universities continue to graduate thousands of students with knowledge that is neither useful in getting a job, nor helping our country succeed in a competitive world.

The bottom line is that both the researchers and the Harper government understand that science research and education are crucial to the future economic success of our country. My advice to those who inhabit the ivory towers of academia is to remember that government will need to move from deficit to surplus in order to rebalance the books as the economy recovers. The choice is to drive change yourselves, or have it thrust upon you by others.

Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of EnCana Corp.

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